I used to love the World Juniors – I was devastated when Marc-André Fleury and his awesome yellow pads were unable to win gold in 2003. This was equaled the next year I skipped high school to watch the gold medal game only to see Fleury score the winning goal on himself banking a clearing attempt off his own defender. But, especially as Canada won five consecutive times between 2005 and 2009, the coverage of the tournament emphasis on Canada’s entitlement to greatness has soured the experience for me. This week at the grocery store, the annual advertising hype for the tournament confronted me with a variation of 2016’s most insidious phrase; “make ___ great again”. This crystallizes my discomfort, as while Donald Trump’s message may not be quite as appealing to Canadians (much to the chagrin of fringe Conservative Party leadership hopeful Kellie Leitch), his xenophobic ultra-nationalism appeals to one pillar of Canada’s national culture, international hockey.
The cover immediately raises the question of “Canada isn’t great?” There’s a compelling argument Canadian hockey is too good. The men’s team has won consecutive Olympic Gold Medals, the last one with little difficulty (and a World Cup). The specific concern is the need to be good at a yearly tournament of teenagers, a spectacle created by the rise of dedicated sports network TSN, perfectly timed to coincide with Christmas and New Year breaks. Despite Canada winning only once in the last seven years, including a historic low finish of 6th last year, the pressure to win is heavy as the popularity in Canada greatly exceeds the other participating countries. The event supposedly draws 19.4 million unique Canadian television viewers over the tournament. It is hosted in Canada approximately every other year, where Canada’s games sell out NHL arenas at premium prices and the event is heavily branded, with even the team’s training camp being the “Sport Chek Selection Camp”. The 2012 tournament in Calgary and Edmonton netted over $22 million in profit (the players, as is standard with junior sport, of course see nothing).
This cultural phenomenon’s popularity seems predicated not on enjoying quality hockey, but on the entitlement of Canadian dominance. Canada’s failure to win has not resulted in decreased viewership, as they are always promoted as the favourites entering the tournament. Each iteration of the team has supposedly fixed the problems with the prior incarnation by returning to what worked in the past . This romanticized past is what “Make Canada Great Again,” and associated ultra-nationalism, depends upon. While the trend in hockey is progressively in favour of puck possession, Canada often prides itself on “old school” hockey of size, hitting, and “grit”. This mythology peaked in the 2005/06 tournament when coach Brent Sutter’s (the personification of such hockey) supposedly less talented team defeated the Evgeni Malkin-led Russians for gold. Grant Kerr of The Globe and Mail raved about this victory as one of grit. And this is the contradiction at the centre of Canadian hockey, that we expect victory, but through a style usually associated with teams lacking the talent to compete directly.
Former broadcaster Pierre McGuire helped turn teenagers into cult heroes with hyperbolic praise of hard hitting players like Jordin Tootoo and Dion Phaneuf. The satisfaction of the tournament was not just beating the opponents on the scoreboard, but also literally. It’s hardly a coincidence another of the magazine’s headline celebrates 30 years of “hockey’s most epic brawl”, the 1987 tournament where Canada and the Soviet Union were disqualified for a 20 minute long bench clearing brawl. This resulted in inevitable praise from Don Cherry and greatly increased media attention on the tournament. While that’s the extreme end of Canada’s commitment to physical hockey, the tournament is often a celebration of “hard work” over talent. This style tends to backfire with international hockey referees, leading to Canada being frequently shorthanded and frustrates Canadian “power forwards” like Jake Virtanen, who complained “The refs in the IIHF are going to call that…. Personally I think the refs were a little bit on their [Finland’s] side.”But rather than re-assess, it leads to accusations of players being “undisciplined” for doing what would be “grit” if uncalled.
This may be beginning to change, as Hockey Canada Director of Player Personnel Ryan Jankowski said after the 2014 loss they would re-emphasize skill, that
traditionally we were two skilled lines, a third line that was two-way, a fourth line that was that energy – Jordin Tootoo. What happened was our third and fourth lines weren’t good enough. The other countries are too good, and when we’re leaving off our skilled players, we’re playing right into their hands.
However, this is not the step forward it may appear, as Jankowski clarifies
You’re going to see [skilled forward] Mitch Marner blocking shots, you’re going to see all these guys doing a number of different things, but let’s not cut our skill in half. That’s the beauty of the Canadian player: They’re all going to play hard, they’re all going to compete because they’re Canadian.
There’s still an imagined essential Canadianess of, despite supposedly being the best, not high skill but rather grit and hard work, that has been lost over time. Now, rather than take players who already have grit, the team intends on teaching grit to goal scorers. This is exactly the style of hockey the reactionary headlined article from the Hockey News is imagining, of finding junior stars willing to check their “ego at the door.”
Philosopher Achille Mbembe reflects
the term “culture” is often used to assert the impossibility of change…Culture is fundamentally about becoming. It is about creativity, indeterminacy and transformation. It is not about pastness, fixed essences and customs.
It is impossible to say that the Canadian culture of the World Juniors is “about becoming”. Rather, it is clearly about “pastness”. There is the assumption that winning is only a matter of returning to a lost mythic origin of Canadianess. Jankowski however did mention the reason for failed Canadian supremacy, even if he appears to not realize it, that “other countries are too good”. Some times Canada does not clearly have the most talented pool of 18-19 year old players in a given year. And thankfully, grit often fails to win out over talent. But while criticism of the roster inevitably occurs with each loss (and if a skill team loses, the call will be for more grit), perhaps it is not just that the style of hockey is failing, but a problem with how Canadians view the hockey world.
Much like how Donald Trump’s promise of “Make America Great Again” is a defence of white male entitlement, Canada acts entitled to being at the top of the hockey world. In the context of white American men, sociologist Michael Kimmel writes
instead of questioning [they] fall back upon the same traditional notions of manhood – physical strength, self-control, power… as if the solution to their problem were simply “more” masculinity. (p15).
This is the same solution proposed for Canada’s junior hockey team (with the recent caveat that we should be skilled and gritty). From a young age, Canadian players and fans internalize the “it’s our game” slogan. Losing to other Canadians is fine because they are part of the “our” (and why there’s little concern about Canadian NHL teams’ Stanley Cup drought, because the players of every winning team are still a majority Canadian). But to lose to other countries is an identity crisis.
It is at the World Juniors that the facade of Canada’s international reputation of being friendly and welcoming to other countries cracks open. Canadians (and as the above picture is indicative, a particularly white Canadianess) created a holiday tradition around indulging entitlement. As it slips away due to the excellence of other countries there is an urge to return to this romanticized version of “our game”. This must be avoided. While there is no making something great “again”, the World Juniors could potentially be a fun hockey tournament with a culture of “becoming” if Canada embraced new approaches to hockey and accepts that hockey is not just “ours”. What fun is a game if no one else can play with you?
Kimmel, M. (2013). Angry white men: American masculinity at the end of an era. New York, NY: Nation Books.